MONTPELIER — House lawmakers have overwhelmingly approved a bill that would give some school districts ordered to merge under Act 46 an extra year to prepare for that transition, while requiring others to heed the July 1 deadline that was written into the law four years ago.
Less than 24 hours after narrowly rejecting a “blanket extension” requested by a tri-partisan coalition of lawmakers led by Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, the House approved a solution designed to give some districts more time to enact their state-ordered mergers.
Thursday’s vote came on an amendment Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, advanced on behalf of fellow members of the House Education Committee. The amendment passed, 134-10, on a roll call vote that set the stage for a couple of voice votes that were pretty close to unanimous.
The lopsided decision and the subdued debate that preceded it stood in stark contrast to Wednesday’s spirited session that ended when Scheuermann’s amendment failed by five votes, 69-74.
That proposal, critics claimed, would have threatened mergers in districts where the July 1 deadline is actually doable and no special accommodation is required.
The committee wrestled with Scheuermann’s request before advancing a bill with a negative recommendation last week. That set the stage for the floor vote Scheuermann was promised by House leadership.
During what some complained was a tortured process, that vote was delayed Tuesday — buying time for the committee to draft a competing amendment that was voted out with a favorable recommendation that afternoon. The measure has cleared the House and is headed to the Senate.
Assuming the Senate approves the bill and Gov. Phil Scott signs it, several districts subject to merger orders issued by the state Board of Education late last year will have until July 1, 2020, to launch their consolidated districts.
That assumes Judge Robert Mello, who is hearing three separate legal challenges to Act 46, doesn’t add a fresh wrinkle by ruling in favor of some or all of the plaintiffs.
Conlon said the committee wasn’t concerned about the courts when it agreed to make limited exceptions to the July 1 deadline.
“Act 46 is the law until it’s no longer the law,” he said.
Conlon defended a proposal that acknowledges — for a variety of reasons — some districts are more ready to meet the statutory deadline than others.
“It’s a tailored approach to help different districts meet the requirements of Act 46,” he said.
Conlon said some districts are “well on the path to meeting the July 1 deadline” and will still be required to do so. Those districts floated — in some cases repeatedly — mergers that were rejected by voters in some, or all, of the necessary communities.
That list includes the Barre Supervisory Union, the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, the Orleans Central Supervisory Union, the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union and the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.
Granting extensions to districts in those supervisory unions was widely viewed by the committee as unnecessary and potentially counterproductive.
Conlon said the committee made the “pragmatic decision” to recommend a one-year extension in several supervisory unions where merger proposals were never presented to voters.
“No matter your opinion of how these districts got to where they are, the fact is, meeting that July 1 deadline would be very difficult,” he said.
That list includes the Washington Central Supervisory Union, anchored by U-32 Middle and High School in East Montpelier, as well as the Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union, the Lamoille South Supervisory Union, the Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, and Bradford and Newbury — both partners in the Oxbow Union High School.
Those districts would get an extra year to complete the transition if the bill that passed the House on Thursday becomes law. However, they would be required to adopt articles of agreement for the merged district by July 1 or risk being saddled with the default articles drafted by the state Board of Education.
The newly passed bill also addresses several other districts — most of them single districts the state has recommended be absorbed by previously merged districts in their supervisory unions. Those districts include Huntington, Cambridge, Barnard, Windham, Orwell, Montgomery and Sheldon.
What Conlon and others described as a “compromise amendment” generated more questions than critiques and was backed by most.
That included Scheuermann, whose home district — Stowe — is among those that will be afforded a legislative reprieve if the House-passed bill becomes law.
Though Scheuermann said she would have preferred a blanket extension, she was satisfied with Thursday’s outcome.
“This is a good place to end up,” she said, suggesting she is hopeful the bill will pass in the Senate.
“I know senators are interested in having this discussion,” she said.
MONTPELIER — While progress has been made in the state’s fight against the opioid epidemic, officials are quick to point out it’s too soon to start talking about success.
Gov. Phil Scott held a press conference Thursday at the State House to release the 2019 report from the governor’s Opioid Coordination Council. The report laid out policy and strategic recommendations to strengthen the state’s approach to addressing the opioid crisis.
“Our continued attention to this issue is so important,” Scott said. “Because nearly every one of us has felt the impact of it. It’s touched every community and every family in Vermont in some way. And if you don’t think it has, you just don’t know it yet.”
He said while sometimes progress feels elusive, Director of Drug Prevention Jolinda LaClair often reminds him to remain optimistic. Because if there is a chance for someone to get treatment then there is hope, he said.
“This attitude is how we have to approach this crisis. As I’ve said before, success will be counted one life at a time. A young man in recovery going back to work. A mother seeing life in the eyes of a child once thought lost forever. A community free from fear of crime and violence. And one less child brought into this world affected by addiction,” he said.
Going by the numbers, there wasn’t much success last year. Health Commissioner Mark Levine announced current data shows 110 Vermonters died last year after overdosing on opioids. That’s two more people than the year before. Officials noted in past years the amount of people dying from opioid overdoses had been climbing sharply, so to have a nearly-flat death total last year is improvement.
Secretary of Human Services Al Gobeille said Thursday’s report focused on successful interventions.
“Meaning we’re trying to say these are steps we’re taking to reduce harm and to keep people safe and to get people into recovery and to make our communities better,” Gobeille said. “This is an epidemic that we are not successful in yet. And I want to be clear about that. This is not a let up moment or a declare success moment. … This is a full-on problem for our state and our country.”
The report, titled “Building Bridges,” makes recommendations in the areas of prevention, treatment, intervention, recovery and enforcement, including opportunities for enhanced statewide integration and collaboration. Some of those recommendations are going to be implemented over the next couple of years.
Using money obtained last year through a settlement with tobacco companies, the state will invest $800,000 to expand access to treatment for those in corrections facilities.
Starting the next fiscal year and continuing for two years after that, the state will also invest about $200,000 per year to hire staff who will provide low-barrier access to the opioid treatment drug suboxone for those in need.
In fiscal year 2020, the state will invest $200,000 per year to support a nurse home visiting program. It will also invest $200,000 per year for after school programming focusing on engaging youth while their parents are at work.
LaClair said there is always hope when someone has a substance use disorder. Every day she said residents need to talk about addiction as a disease and to talk about pathways to treatment and recovery.
BENNINGTON — A man whose harassment of an African-American state representative caused her to drop out of the election last year was arraigned Thursday on charges of possessing large-capacity ammunition magazines, a charge for which, if convicted, he could be sentenced to up to two years in jail.
Max B. Misch, 36, of Bennington, pleaded not guilty in Bennington criminal court on Thursday to two misdemeanor counts of possession of the devices. Each charge is punishable by up to one year in jail.
Misch has spoken openly with the media about the campaign of harassment and intimidation directed toward Kiah Morris, who had been a member of the Vermont House of Representatives, and described himself as a “troll.” He said it had been “fun” for him, but when asked if he wanted to comment on Thursday, Misch walked by without replying.
He was also ordered not to have contact with Kiah Morris, who had been a member of the Vermont House of Representatives, or her husband, James Lawton.
Misch was arrested by the Vermont State Police and his prosecution is being handled by the office of Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan.
Assistant Attorney General Ultan Doyle asked Judge William Cohen to set a bail of $400, $200 for each charge, but Misch was released without bail.
Misch was ordered to allow the Vermont State Police to take possession of any firearms or dangerous weapons.
Attorney Susan McManus, who represented Misch, said her client objected to being “stripped of his Second Amendment rights.”
“My client has also received death threats online from numerous individuals because of the national attention this case has received so he himself has received death threats. To say that he cannot possess firearms where there is no applicable threat to any members of the public would be a forfeiture of his Constitutional rights to possess those firearms that he legally can possess,” McManus said.
McManus said Misch would agree to a condition that he not possess any illegal firearms or weapons.
While Cohen said he noted Misch’s objections, he granted Doyle’s request about weapons and a separate request that he issue an order allowing Vermont State Police to go to Misch’s Gage Street home to collect the weapons.
In an affidavit, Trooper Patrick Slaney said he was assigned to investigate Misch on Jan. 25. Slaney said the Bennington Police Department had initiated the investigation in October.
According to the affidavit, Lisa Shapiro, also known as Lisa Misch, Max Misch’s ex-wife, had told police about Misch’s “escalating behavior, racist ideations and a continued effort to obtain additional firearms, magazines and ammunition.”
Slaney interviewed Shapiro on Jan. 28. He said she told him she had shared her concerns about Misch’s behavior with her therapist who had contacted law enforcement. It wasn’t clear from the affidavit whether the Bennington Police Department had been contacted by Shapiro or her therapist initially.
“Shapiro described Misch as an intelligent man who has a working knowledge of laws and personal rights. He has a predatory nature and tries to intimidate people physically and through the internet. Shapiro said that Misch has no loyalty and is arrogant. Misch identifies as a white supremacist and neo-Nazi and is a proud member of the Green Mountain Goys, a local white supremacist group,” Slaney wrote in the affidavit.
Shapiro also accused Misch of assaulting her in March 2016.
She told Slaney she drove Misch to Hinsdale, New Hampshire, in December where he allegedly bought two 30-round magazines. She said she is not familiar with firearms but said Misch told her that high-capacity magazine sales and possession were no longer legal in Vermont.
Slaney said he obtained records and video of the New Hampshire sales from the store on Jan. 31.
The affidavit said Slaney and Lt. Reg Trayah, of the Vermont State Police, interviewed Misch on Feb. 6. He admitted to buying magazines for an AR-15-style rifle in the last six months but declined to continue the interview when asked if he purchased any magazines after Oct. 1.
Executing a search warrant on Feb. 6, police found two 30-round magazines in Misch’s homes that matched the purchases seen on the New Hampshire store’s video surveillance.
After Misch’s arraignment, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan spoke with the press. Donovan has been criticized for declining to prosecute Misch for what members of the Rutland Area chapter of the NAACP called a campaign of terror against Morris. Donovan’s decision was announced at a Bennington press conference which Misch attended.
Donovan criticized Misch’s behavior but said the First Amendment protected his right to free speech.
Donovan said the charges brought on Thursday were based on new evidence disclosed to his office the week of Jan. 22.
He denied the prosecution was a “vindictive act” of the attorney general’s office.
“We treat everybody with respect, but when there’s an allegation that somebody violated the law, we’re going to investigate that allegation. We’re going to gather the facts, the evidence and make a determination whether or not the law was violated. That’s what we did in this case. We believe there was probable cause. The court agreed with us. Mr. Misch was charged,” he said.
Donovan said Morris and her family have been kept informed about the case.
He said he believed the charges against Misch were the first prosecution of the law, enacted last year, about the possession of large-capacity magazines.
MONTPELIER — New soil and groundwater tests at the site of a proposed public parking garage confirm that two lots on which it will be built are contaminated with a variety of industrial pollutants that will require remediation.
The reports confirm two earlier studies of the Capitol Plaza Hotel parking lot off State Street. A range of commercial and industrial uses of the site dating back to the 1820s had polluted the site with oil, gasoline, lead, arsenic, mercury, dry-cleaning fluids and carbon from the burning of coal, wood and building fires on the site, according to the studies.
The new tests included soil and groundwater samples taken from the adjacent Heney Lot — on which the garage will be partially built — and also show similar contamination of the site.
The tests were required as part of an 81-room Hampton Inn & Suites hotel and garage project proposed by the Bashara family that owns the Capitol Plaza Hotel and Conference center. The Basharas received permits for the hotel and garage in May but then asked the city to partner with them on the garage. The city agreed but increased the size of the garage from 230 to 348 spaces, which extended the footprint of the building onto part of the adjacent Heney Lot. The Bashara family will be required to conduct its own soil and groundwater tests of the hotel site.
The city of Montpelier commissioned Waterbury-based engineering consultants Weston and Sampson to test the garage site on the two lots.
The report on the half-acre site for the garage on the Capitol Plaza parking lot confirmed the site was used for a variety of commercial and industrial purposes over the last 200 years.
“The location of the site in an historically commercial and industrial area of Montpelier indicates that the subsurface soils at the site likely have elevated concentrations of ubiquitous urban contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), arsenic and lead,” the report said.
Groundwater samples at the northwest corner of the site found the presence of trimethylbenzene, a gas additive, and naphthalene, used to make moth balls, that will require remediation. Several other compounds — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes — were detected but were below Vermont Groundwater Enforcement Standards. The report recommended that monitoring wells at the site can be decommissioned.
However, the report recommended that a corrective action plan be prepared for the site that will include the removal and disposal of contaminated soil off-site. The project calls for the removal of 5 feet of soil across the footprint of the building, amounting to 4,300 tons.
The report found similar contamination of the Heney Lot site that will also require similar remediation.
City officials have said it is too early to provide an estimate of the costs of remediating contaminated soil on the project site.
Remediation of the Capitol Plaza parking lot portion of the project — which has been donated and deeded to the city — will be paid for by the Department of Environmental Conservation because the project site falls within the newly created Tax Increment Financing District that funds infrastructure improvements to promote development in downtowns. Remediation of the Heney Lot will not be covered by DEC because it is a private lot being leased by the city.
City Manager Bill Fraser acknowledged Thursday that the report on soil tests confirmed there would need to be remediation of contamination of the garage site.
“As we expected, given the history of the property, there are various levels of contaminated soils on the site that will have to be remediated,” Fraser said. “There are various levels of remediation — everything from leaving it alone, to reusing on site to disposal in Coventry (at a landfill site) — and we’ll have to sort through what soils go where. It’s a good opportunity to clean up a problematic site and leave the property in much better environmental shape.
“The hotel did their investigation independently. From what we understand, they are in a similar circumstance, but because of the nature of their construction, they have a lot less soil to be removed,” Fraser added.